Team Sky's bid to win the Vuelta a Espana with suffered a major setback on stage 15 as Chris Froome lost over two and a half minutes after Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) launched a lethal ambush.
Froome was left with just one teammate, David López, for longterm support, and although Orica-BikeExchange, Astana and even briefly BMC allied with the Sky rider behind, it was hard for them to do more than limit the gap.
Froome fought hard in the final kilometres to limit the damage himself, but struggled in the final four kilometres, being dropped by Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange), who strengthened his third place overall. He finished 18th, 2:37 back on Quintana.
The Briton remains in second place, but over three and a half minutes down. López, having made a huge effort to keep Froome in place was the next Sky rider home at over 41 minutes, whilst the remaining six Sky riders were all in the chase group at 53 minutes.
Froome did not talk to reporters at the finish line, taking an energy drink and heading for the bus immediately, and López swung around just after the finishing gantries. However Leopold Kónig, who finished second last, told reporters, "There was a gap of five or ten seconds at the beginning, and it's probably cost us the whole Vuelta, me and maybe Chris too.
"We were at the front on the downhill, there were maybe two or three groups, we had the first group at 10 seconds and then there were just two or three guys with Chris."
Previously fifth overall and talking up his chances of maybe getting on the podium to Czech media yesterday, König is now 31st overall.
Although it is easy to be pessimistic, discounting next Sunday's ceremonial stage in Madrid, Froome has six stages in which to regain time, with the time trial, above all in his favour. But he has also shown strongly in the most recent mountain stages, closing down Quintana's attacks with relative ease and beating the Colombian at Peña Cabarga.
Given how tenaciously Froome has fought in the past and in this year's Vuelta, Quintana is the first rider to preach caution and Froome himself has - albeit on the first rest day - pointed to how the Giro GC went into full reverse in the final week, with Vincenzo Nibali taking the win.
In such a topsy-turvy Vuelta, it would be unwise to take anything for granted.
Vuelta a Espana - Stage 15 Video Highlights
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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